If you’re looking at taking the SAT IIs, one curious thing you’ve probably seen is that there are actually two SAT II math tests: SAT II Math I and SAT II Math II.

If this sounds a little redundant, we think it does too. But the truth is, each of these tests is slightly different. And that slight difference may end up making a big difference on your application, depending on how you play your cards.

From the collective knowledge base of our SAT tutors and college mentors, here are a few definitions, descriptions, and comparisons that might be useful in determining which one of these tests you should take.

 

Quick Stats

Logistically, the breakdown of each of these math tests goes something like this:

SAT Math I

No, this isn’t a repackaged version of the SAT’s math section. Whereas the SAT itself aims to test more of your logic and reasoning skills, the SAT subject versions of math focus more on actual mastery of a few specific concepts.

  • 50 multiple-choice questions in 60 minutes. Calculators are okay!
  • Graded on a scale from 200 to 800
  • Assumes that you’ve taken algebra one, algebra two, and geometry
  • Tests you in four different areas: number and operations, algebra and functions, geometry and measurement, and data analysis (statistics and probability)
  • The test is roughly 80% algebra and geometry, and roughly 20% number and operations and data analysis
  • Tests for plane geometry, a topic not directly covered in Math II
  • Covers basic algebraic functions, such as lines and parabolas, and mostly right-angle trigonometry with basic usage of sine, cosine, and tangent
  • The data analysis section covers basic statistical measures (mean, median, mode, range) as well as linear regression, data analysis, and probability

SAT Math II

Math II tests everything that Math I tests, but at a more advanced level. CollegeBoard intends for this test to “to highlight your abilities and showcase your interest in higher-level mathematics” such as precalculus and trigonometry.

  • 60 minutes to answer 50 questions — calculators are okay!
  • Graded on a scale from 200 to 800
  • Assumes that you’ve taken both algebra one and two, geometry, trigonometry, and precalculus
  • Tests you in four different areas: number and operations, algebra and functions, geometry and measurement, and data analysis (statistics and probability)
  • The test is roughly 80% algebra and geometry, and roughly 20% number and operations and data analysis
  • Covers exponential, logarithmic, and trigonometric functions in addition to the algebraic functions in Math I
  • Focuses more on three-dimensional and coordinate geometry, including conics and polar coordinates
  • Tests for your ability to manipulate trigonometric functions via inverses and laws
  • Statistics section includes standard deviation, exponential regression, and quadratic regression methods in addition to everything covered in Math I

 

So, which one should I take?

First of all, you should always pay attention to the exact requirements specified by the college or program you’re applying to, since each institution has its own set of preferences. Some institutions will only accept one of the two subject tests but not both. Some institutions require both. Some don’t want either. So always do your research before spending your money!

Secondly, if you have a handle on your own math skills and how well you might do on each exam, we’d recommend that you take the one you have a better shot at getting above a 760 on, because by and large — SATs are evaluated more by the number you score than the subject you score in. It sounds like common sense, but overextending yourself can often make you suffer more for worse results. If you’re sure you can score above a 760 in both, then take Math II as it’s the more comprehensive test.

But that aside — if the college or program you’re applying to gives you wiggle room, here’s what we recommend:

Take Math II if…

  • You’re going into a STEM or STEM-related field
  • Abstract, analytical thinking is one of your strengths
  • You scored above a 750 in the SAT math section
  • You have ample time to study and practice — from our experience, we don’t recommend winging this test

Just like CollegeBoard said, Math II is the test for people who are probably going to continue to use math in college and beyond. It tests for the mastery of fundamental concepts and thinking patterns that many college-level math courses — linear algebra, differential equations, and multivariable calculus, to name a few — are built upon. Many top engineering, math, and science programs require that applicants take Math II in addition to their other standardized tests, and this Math II score is evaluated in conjunction with the applicant’s SAT or ACT scores. Taking Math II shows these programs that you’re confident in your own advanced math skills and reasoning to handle anything that they might throw at you.

You don’t have to satisfy all four bullet points above to take Math II — just one is sufficient. But we really are serious about the fourth one; the sheer amount of information that’s on this test can make many people draw a blank. When you walk into that room on testing day, it’s crucial that all these math concepts be well-practiced, fresh in your mind, and at your command.

A perk about the SAT Math II is that it usually has a pretty generous curve — it’s not unheard of for someone to miss five or six questions and still get an 800. But of course, it only has such a generous curve because it’s one of the more difficult SAT IIs.

Take Math I if…

  • You’re looking to show a diverse skillset in your portfolio
  • You prefer concrete reasoning of problems via established rules

A lot of liberal arts programs like for students to show that they can play with both the logical side and the creative side of things, and often require students to take SAT IIs in a smattering of unrelated fields. If this sounds like you, Math I is often a good selection to add to your set. It’s not as background-intensive as many of the SAT II science tests, and compared to Math II, it’s a lot less focused on abstract logic and more on concrete problem-solving.

Of course, like all math tests — scoring well on Math I requires a lot of practice, drilling, and memorization as well, though not nearly as much as Math II. Many of the equations and theorems tested on Math II — like the trigonometric identities and the laws of trig functions — are not tested in Math I. The curve on Math I is a little less generous than the one on Math II, however.

Should I ever take both?

In most cases, no.

If you can comfortably take Math II and take Math I anyway, this is seen as a redundant gesture by most adcoms. They’re perfectly aware of the fact that Math II already includes all the concepts that Math I covers. Even if you are taking Math I to fulfill some kind of SAT II quota, it’s a signal to the adcoms that you’re trying to cover up some weakness in your skillset, since the point of having you take a certain amount of SAT IIs is to showcase the breadth of what you can do. In fact, some of these programs that require a SAT II quota even go as far as to exclude Math I from counting as a requirement entirely to prevent people from using this loophole.

But like we said earlier — you should always consult the rules of the programs you’re applying to first, because there are exceptions to this rule.

Whether you decide to take the Math I or Math II test, the common denominator here is that SAT math is very practice-intensive, and the difference between doing well and doing great is often the amount of time you spend doing practice problems. So choosing the right test is only one piece of the whole puzzle — the right practice books, practice style, or even the right SAT mentor can all affect the score you finally send away to colleges.

 

Jeanette Si

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).
Jeanette Si